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S-R Hunting Outlook 2020: Washington big game hunters have opportunity for harvest

If you’re a big game hunter in Eastern Washington or North Idaho, you may have already spent time out in the woods scouting, setting up stands or, if you’re an archer, actually hunting. If not, what’s keeping you?

Unfortunately, with the wildfires and smoke blanketing the region, it’s tough to be outdoors for long periods of time and you might be behind in planning for the season. But we – along with the fish and game departments in the area – can at least provide some guidance for where you might want to hunt this fall once the skies clear again.

This isn’t a how-to guide, but with archery season well underway and with the general hunting seasons for deer and elk (and other big game) rapidly approaching, now is the time to brush up on the hunting prospects in your Game Management Unit (GMU) – or even contemplate a change in scenery this fall.

Please check the Washington Big Game Hunting Regulations for a complete listing of hunting seasons, important dates, antler point restrictions and safety guidelines.

Districts

Eastern Washington is comprised of three “districts” within Region 1 of Washington’s game management system. Each district has strengths – and challenges – to offer hunters throughout the region.

District 1 (Ferry, Pend Oreille, Stevens counties) is known for its white-tailed deer, moose, and turkey hunting opportunities. Quality hunting opportunities also exist for other game species, including mule deer, black bear, forest grouse and cougar.

District 2 (Lincoln, Spokane, Whitman) is known for its deer hunting opportunities, including white-tailed deer in the Spokane and Palouse agricultural lands and mule deer in the channeled scablands and breaks of the Snake River. Quality hunting opportunities also exist for other game species, including pheasant and elk, if hunters have secured access to private lands. Moose and bighorn sheep hunters can enjoy quality hunts if they are selected for special permit hunts.

District 3 (Asotin, Columbia, Garfield, Walla Walla) is known for its elk hunting opportunities in the Blue Mountains and mule deer hunting opportunities in grassland/agricultural GMUs. Hunting opportunities also exist for other game species, including white-tailed deer, black bear, chukar, turkey and pheasant.

Deer

District 1: In Northeast Washington, white-tailed deer are the most abundant deer species. Mule deer are locally common, especially in the higher elevations and throughout Ferry County, but their overall numbers are low compared to white-tailed deer on a district scale.

The best opportunities to harvest a mule deer in District 1 generally occur in GMUs 101 (Sherman) and 121 (Huckleberry). All GMUs within the district offer good opportunities to harvest a white-tailed deer.

Harvest has remained stable in District 1 over the past two years, an expected trend based on regulation changes.

In 2020, hunters of any user group or weapon type will not be able to harvest a doe – this regulation change was enacted to protect the reproductive component of the population. Preseason surveys for the past three years yielded stable buck-to-doe and fawn-to-doe ratios.

District 2: Overall, the white-tailed deer population is down in District 2 due to a series of events starting with the drought and blue tongue outbreak of 2015 that lasted well into October. After showing signs of recovery, the winter of 2018-19 was rough and there was a small outbreak of Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease in north Lincoln and northwest Spokane counties.

Last winter was mild and 2020 spring precipitation was up, which should increase forage availability.

All of these should help the white-tailed deer population start to rebound. Overall, the mule deer herds are near their long-term averages.

In general, the best opportunities to harvest a white-tailed deer occur in GMUs 124 and 127. The best opportunities to harvest a mule deer occur in GMUs 136, 139 and 142. For archery hunters, GMUs 124 and 127 provide the best terrain, whereas the terrain in GMUs 136–142 is better suited for muzzleloader and modern firearm.

There is a 3-point minimum regulation in GMUs 127-142 for white-tailed deer.

The late white-tailed deer season in GMUs 127-142 is by permit only.

District 3: Opportunities vary from marginal to quite good, depending on the GMU. The GMUs with the highest success (GMUs 145, 178, 181, and 186) also have the highest amount of private land, and access can be limited.

GMUs where access to public land is highest (GMUs 166, 169, and 175) have the lowest success, probably due to a combination of high hunter numbers, a high percentage of legal bucks harvested and lower-quality deer habitat.

Hunter success and harvest/unit effort of either white-tailed or mule deer is highest in GMUs 145 (Mayview), 178 (Peola), 181 (Couse) and 186 (Grande Ronde). Total general season harvest is highest in GMUs 149 (Prescott), 154 (Blue Creek) and 162 (Dayton).

Elk

District 1: The quality of elk hunting opportunities in District 1 varies from poor to fair depending on the GMU, but in general, opportunities are marginal and harvest success is low. Elk are widely scattered in small groups throughout the densely forested region of Northeast Washington. As a consequence, elk in Northeast Washington are difficult to survey and harvest.

Increasing hunter harvest, documented expansion of elk distribution and anecdotal information indicate that elk populations are stable and possibly increasing in Northeast Washington.

The best elk hunting opportunities occur in GMUs associated with the Pend Oreille subherd area, which includes GMUs 113 (Selkirk), 117 (49 Degrees North) and 111 (Aladdin).

District 2: The majority of the district’s elk harvest typically occurs in GMU 130, though a high proportion consistently occurs in GMUs 124 and 127. Hunters who gain access to private lands in GMUs 127 and 130 have typically had the highest success, though success in GMUs 136 and 139 has been higher the past couple of years.

In GMU 130, hunters likely benefit from animals moving on and off Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge during the season. Elk are often targeted by nearby landowners due to seasonal crop, fence and haystack damage.

With one-third of the elk hunters in District 2, GMU 124 (Mt Spokane) sustains the greatest hunting pressure.

As a result, overall hunter success is lower there, although the unit periodically produces one of the higher harvests of mature 6-point bulls.

Elk in District 2 appear to be expanding into new areas, and harvest in GMUs 139 (Steptoe) and 142 (Almota) has increased over the past five years.

District 3: The winters of 2016-17 and 2018-19 were uncommonly severe, resulting in a significant decline in elk numbers in District 3. Calf recruitment since 2016 has remained below average, so populations available for harvest are expected to remain lower than years prior to the 16-17 winter.

The 2020 general season is expected to be similar to the average during the past four years, and harvest since 2016 has been the lowest in the past 20 years. Hunter numbers also typically do not change substantially from one year to the next, but a slow decline has been observed with the declining population.

Much of District 3 is private land, managed to minimize elk numbers due to conflict with agricultural activities. The best bets for success on public land in District 3 are GMUs 166 and 175.

Bear

District 1: Black bears occur throughout District 1, but population densities vary among GMUs. The best opportunities to harvest a bear likely occur in GMUs 101 (Sherman) and 117 (49 Degrees North), mainly on account of abundant public land that is open to hunting.

Annual black bear harvest during the general bear season in District 1 showed a stable trend from 2014 to 2016 before declining sharply in 2017 and 2018. Harvest increased a bit in 2019 and may continue to fluctuate up and down.

District 2: Bear harvest in District 2 is substantially lower than in the rest of the northeastern black bear management units, likely due to habitat and hunter access limitations.

Bear harvest in District 2 also varies widely year by year, as bears are most often harvested by deer and elk hunters when they come across one during their general seasons. Most of the harvest consistently occurs in GMUs 124 and 127.

District 3: Black bears occur mainly in the foothills and forested areas, but population densities vary among GMUs. The highest densities of bears occur in GMUs 154 (Blue Creek) and 162 (Dayton). Since 2001, hunter success in District 3 has averaged just 6% and has never been higher than 9%.

Turkey

Hunters who harvested two birds in Eastern Washington during the spring can still participate in fall turkey hunting seasons, as each season has a separate bag limit.

District 1: In most GMUs, fall harvest has increased, possibly from an increase in the population but more likely the result of a longer season and more liberal bag limit that began in 2018. There has been a dramatic rise in harvest in GMUs 101, 111 and 117, while GMU 113 took a hard dip last year.

District 2: Observations during fieldwork, public reports and damage claims indicate that the turkey population is doing well in GMUs 124-133 and stable in GMUs 136-142. GMU 124 has by far the most turkeys and the most turkey harvest. GMUs 130 and 133 come in a distant second for turkey harvest, followed closely by GMU 127. GMUs 136, 139 and 142 have relatively few turkeys compared to these other units.

District 3: GMUs 154 (Blue Creek) and 162 (Dayton) have the highest turkey harvests. Although densities are lower, good numbers of birds can be found on National Forest lands and local wildlife areas, including the Wooten Wildlife Area in GMU 166 (Tucannon), Asotin Creek Wildlife Area in GMU 175 (Lick Creek), and the Chief Joseph Wildlife Area in GMU 186 (Grande Ronde).

Cougar

District 1: Cougar harvest guidelines were increased for GMUs within District 1 for 2020. Hunters harvested around 50 cougars in each of the past two seasons, with GMUs 117 and 121 the best bets – although none of the six cougar hunt units reached its harvest guidelines last season.

District 2: Harvest has been increasing over the past six years, with the highest reported harvest of 20 cougars during the 2016 license year (average of 13 last 10 years). Harvest is consistently the highest in GMUs 124 and 133, and sightings in these units are also common. Cougar harvest in GMUs 136–142 is typically low.

District 3: Harvest has been variable over the years, with the average since 1990 of 16 cougars and a range between a low of seven and a high of 33. In 17 out of the past 25 years, the range has been between 12-20 cougars harvested.

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